It's a catch-22: the lenses of ground-based telescopes can be made huge, but are hamstrung by distortion from the atmosphere. Hubble-type telescopes don't have that issue, but must be small to be launched into space, and good luck fixing them. That's where NASA's SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) comes in: by sticking a 17-ton telescope into a Boeing 747, you can launch it up to 45,000 feet and get past 99 percent of our atmosphere's water vapor. That way, SOFIA astronomers can scan infrared signals to study planetary atmospheres, comets and interstellar star chemistry, to name a few projects. Naturally, it's a science- and gadget-lovers smorgasbord -- check the gallery and video below, or head over to NASA's SOFIA mission site.

Gallery | 8 Photos

Big Picture NASA SOFIA telescope gallery